[Sidebar] November 23 - 30, 2000

[Features]

Disappearing ink

The Providence Journal's coverage of stories in which the paper had a stake used to be inconsistent. But since it was bought by Belo, the commitment to self-scrutiny has withered

by Ian Donnis

[] As Robert Weygand lagged behind Lincoln Chafee going into the home stretch of their US Senate race, some Democratic insiders were more than willing to place part of the blame on another local institution -- like John Chafee -- that has Republican inclinations and Yankee roots: the Providence Journal. There was even an "evidence wall" of clippings in the press office at Weygand's campaign headquarters near the Garden City Mall in Cranston.

Throughout the campaign, there were lots of little things that gave Weygand communications director Terry Donilon fits -- like the way a September visit for Chafee by Elizabeth Dole played on the front of the Journal's Rhode Island section, while coverage of campaign appearances for Weygand by AFL-CIO president John Sweeney and George Mitchell, the former Maine senator who helped to broker the Northern Ireland peace accord, was tucked inside the front section.

Even before that, the perception among some Democrats that the Journal treats Chafee with kid gloves was enhanced by a May 31 editorial that slammed the appointment to the Federal Election Commission of Bradley Smith, an arch foe of campaign finance reform, but neglected to mention that Chafee voted for the appointment. "We would have whomped him if I had known about that," says editorial page editor Robert Whitcomb. "I can't know every thing, in every place, at all times." Sure, but it's not like it takes much legwork to check out two Senate votes.

Still, these kinds of instances can be attributed more to the disorganized process of publishing a newspaper than anything else, and even Donilon praises much of the Journal's campaign coverage as outstanding. In fact, the coverage basically reflected the obvious -- that Weygand faced an insurmountable disadvantage in competing, just a year after John Chafee's unexpected death, against the heir of the best brand name in Rhode Island politics. If anything, perceptions of a Republican bias in the Journal's news pages are a vestige of the bygone days when a handful of Yankee families, including the Chafees, ran the state as a fiefdom and formulated the paper's content to suit their purposes.

Although the Journal has since become known as one of the best papers of its size, winning a handful of Pulitzers and doggedly investigating the state's multitudinous political intrigues, even its recent history contains episodes in which the paper has been less disinterested than its reputation would suggest. Tony Lioce, for example, was busted off his four-day a week column in 1979, when he lampooned the high cost of the Biltmore Hotel after it was revived by a group of local businessmen, including the Journal's owners. Although the company was decidedly a minority investor, "They [Journal management] went crazy," recalls Lioce, now entertainment editor at the San Jose Mercury News. "They had me rewrite it between editions to try to tone it down."

Former publisher Michael P. Metcalf, who died after a mysterious and unexplained 1987 bicycle crash, had a reputation for sinking resources into the paper and not interfering with news coverage. But reporter Brian C. Jones says a lead story that he wrote about an overly costly clean-up plan for Narragansett Bay was peeled off the front page of the now-defunct Evening Bulletin in the '80s -- before much of the same information was subsequently published -- after proponents called Metcalf to protest. Another reporter, John Castellucci, asked to be reassigned from the downtown development beat when, he says, his story on the revival of the Providence Place Mall project in 1994 came back from former publisher Stephen Hamblett with comments and suggestions. Joel Rawson, the Journal's respected executive editor, declined to comment on the episode, and Hamblett didn't return a phone call from the Phoenix.

This kind of meddling is a long way from the ideals that John Peter Zenger fought for, but it would be naive to believe that publishers haven't periodically been heavy-handed. As powerful institutions, newspapers not only shape public opinion ("Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one," as famously put by A.J. Liebling, who became the father of modern press criticism after starting his career at the Evening Bulletin), but have a web of interests that extend far beyond what winds up in print. And the influence of the Journal, which sets the agenda for which Rhode Island stories get reported by radio, TV news and the Associated Press, is amplified by its statewide dominance. Still, customers could always read between the lines when the traditionally Republican, pro-business paper's coverage of a 1973 strike by Journal workers was, shall we say, less than even-handed.

[] The apex of self-scrutiny at the paper may have been in the run-up to the 1997 sale of the Providence Journal Co. to the A.H. Belo Corporation of Dallas, which emerged from the transaction as one of the nation's largest diversified media companies. But if the Journal's willingness to subject itself to institutional self-examination was inconsistent and parochial in the past, that commitment has withered since Belo bought the paper. Some staffers regard the change as an inexorable byproduct of the ascendance of business interests at the Journal -- a process that began when Hamblett streamlined the paper's operations in the years before it was offered for sale. The dominant feeling for many others, though, is abiding nostalgia for the days of the ancien regime.

Although they find it impossible to ignore the timing of this fundamental change, staffers remain uncertain whether it emanates from the fourth-floor office of publisher Howard Sutton, who didn't return a call seeking comment, or Belo headquarters. Regardless of the source, it's certainly not promising when a pattern of self-censorship emerges at a newspaper.

ALTHOUGH MORE sophisticated business reporting has become a newspaper staple over the last decade, it remains difficult for newspapers to do a good job in reporting on themselves under even the best of circumstances. That said, editors and publishers at respected papers generally recognize they have a responsibility to report legitimate stories in which their institutions have a stake. The Boston Globe, for example, routinely treats internal labor strife as fair game for the paper's business section.

But a story that goes virtually unmentioned in the Journal is the bitter and extended battle between management and the Providence Newspaper Guild, which represents about 500 of 1200 workers at the paper, and whose members contend that management is trying to destroy the union (see "Hardball," News, February 25). Managers on the business side at Fountain Street don't publicly comment on the stalemate except for when an occasional decision breaks in their favor. But Journal reporters don't have any difficulty in seeing the hypocrisy of how the paper repeatedly gave front-page play to a recent labor dispute at Rhode Island Hospital, while a similar situation at the Journal -- an institution that touches far more Rhode Islanders on a daily basis -- is ignored.

In the same way, it was dutifully reported in the Journal when cable provider Cox Communications experienced some technical glitches earlier this year. But a Soviet-style blackout was imposed when a new computerized circulation system fouled thousands of Journal subscriptions, stopping delivery for customers who didn't request cancellations and failing to initiate subscriptions for new customers. The situation was so severe that, for weeks on end, reporters in suburban bureaus and at the Journal's Fountain Street headquarters were besieged by calls and visits from customers who wanted their paper and an explanation. "If another big company in Rhode Island had screwed up half as badly as the Journal had, the Journal would have been all over it," says Tony DePaul, a reporter in the Warwick bureau. "Everyone was talking about it. I got questions everywhere I went."

Citing the adversarial atmosphere between the Guild and management, Rawson, who helped to engineer the newspaper's rise in journalistic quality, declined to discuss the Journal's willingness to report stories that involve the paper or its corporate parent. He contends, though, that the paper is much better than it was 20 years ago, praising the quality of the staff, efforts by the four-person investigative team, an emphasis on local news, in-depth coverage of big stories, like the death earlier this year of Cornel Young Jr., and special reports, like Randall Richard's series on the Immigration and Naturalization Service's overly zealous approach to deportations, which may help to spark reforms.

A number of staffers, though, are troubled by the Journal's direction. For starters, there's the four-month-old breakdown in contract talks and management's imposition of concessions on the union. While many scribes are prone to grousing, Guild members consider the situation so severe that they're working with the 80,000-member Rhode Island AFL-CIO and other unions to plan a boycott in which Journal readers may be asked not to buy the paper. The concerns go further. DePaul, a 14-year veteran, has been on a byline strike since January, protesting what he calls an emphasis on high story counts from the bureaus at the expense of in-depth reportage. According to the Guild, the Journal is considering eliminating the local news section in the Monday paper, some reporting vacancies have gone unfilled, and other cost-cutting measures are being considered, even though the Journal is $2 million ahead of its projected revenue for the year. Trimming the size of the paper, as the BostonGlobe has successfully done, is also being considered as a hedge against anticipated cost increases for newsprint.

Still, even these gripes pale in comparison to the impression that Belo's business concerns have started influencing the Journal's news pages.

UNTIL SUNDAY, November 12, few readers were aware of the Journal's plan to incorporate lots of little bar codes next to stories and standing features in the newspaper. The use of these ubiquitous symbols of commerce is at a nascent stage in newspapers and magazines (see "What is the code, ProJo?," This just in, July 7), but a number of corporations envision them as a cash cow in the emerging world of new media. Not least among these is Belo, the Dallas-based owner of the Journal, whose flagship is the Dallas Morning News.

Like a number of other media heavyweights, Belo has invested millions of dollars in Digital:Convergence, a privately held Dallas company whose future is based on the placement of these bar codes and the hand-held scanner, a mouse-like device known as a :CueCat, that's used to read them and thereby link PC users with particular destinations on the Web. Working with Belo, Forbes, Wired, Parade, Radio Shack, NBC, and Scripps Howard, Digital:Convergence plans to distribute more than 10 million free :CueCats and accompanying software to consumers by the end of this year, and more than 50 million -- the approximate number of Internet-connected households -- by the end of 2001.

In breathless hype ("The :CueCat reader will forever change the way you use the Internet"), Digital:Convergence touts its toy as the way for media consumers to jump to related information on the 'net, reaching far more than can canvassed by search engines, without having to type in URLs. Corresponding software is said to allow PCs to "hear" audio cues embedded in any type of audio and video media, including television, radio, CDs, and DVDs. Certainly, newspapers like the Journal, which have been struggling with declining circulation for years, can't be blamed for trying to hitch their carts to the expanding worlds of e-commerce and multi-media.

The only problem: some of the people who have tried the :CueCat, including Walt Mossberg, a highly respected personal technology columnist for the Wall Street Journal, say it sucks. Bigger problem: although Mossberg's column usually appears, three days after its initial publication in the WSJ, in the "Issues & Ideas" section of the Providence Sunday Journal, a piece in which he ragged on the Belo-backed :CueCat was nowhere to be seen in the paper on October 15. This is what's called the blatant appearance of a conflict of interest.

In the offending column, Mossberg wrote that the :CueCat's central flaw is that a user has to have the newspaper right by their computer -- a placement he calls "unnatural and ridiculous." In addition, the :CueCat "usually took so much rubbing and dragging to get the scanner to read the codes, that in many cases I could have typed in the Web address more quickly." Mossberg's conclusion: "For now, the :CueCat isn't worth installing and using, even though it's available free of charge."

This column finally ran Sunday, November 12 -- the same day that the placement of bar codes in the Journal, and the availability of :CueCats at Radio Shack and Cumberland Farms stores, was officially introduced to readers through a front-page teaser and a B-1 editor's column by Rawson. Noting that some of Mossberg's criticism was directed at the particular Web links posted by other publications, Rawson tells the Phoenix, "[We] wanted to make sure we posted our own stuff," before publishing the column. Three additional columns on the pros and cons of :CueCats were also published, although there was no mention of the decision to delay publication of the Mossberg column. And in contrast to the three other pieces, the original publication date wasn't included for Mossberg's column.

Although its main purpose is clearly geared to selling stuff, the :CueCat may have some real utility as a way to link readers to lengthy texts, musical samples and other things that can't always be included in a newspaper. Then again, it may remain "an improbable creation that accomplishes nothing but that's absurd in its complexity," as Scott Rosenberg wrote in a salon.com piece cited in the Sunday Journal. Even Rawson has some doubts about the :CueCat, saying, "I think the real question is whether people find it useful or fun to use." Nonetheless, Journal readers were greeted for a week by a blurb on the bottom of the front page, indicating the paper has introduced a new technology "that promises to help readers make better use of the World Wide Web."

After Mossberg's :CueCat column was delayed, Journal staffers were told that it didn't run because most readers weren't familiar with the device, so the information wouldn't mean much to them. Strictly speaking, there's a certain logic to this, although technology columnists commonly deal with subjects that aren't yet known by the public. Technological change has a lot more relevance for Journal readers than, say, a tornado in Oklahoma, or any number of other stories that are routinely published in the paper. And most importantly, newspapers are supposed to be in the business of publishing news, not imposing restraint until readers are "ready" to receive it.

Alex S. Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, calls the Journal's decision to delay publication of the Mossberg column "a perfect example of what you don't want to do. It seems to me, a more honorable way to do it would have been to print the column [without delay]. You have to be susceptible to shame. It's like not carrying a Doonesbury cartoon or something. It's something so blatantly self-interested, it's an embarrassment."

Even if Mossberg's column was something of an insider's read, there were other good reasons not to delay its publication. :CueCats will be used to build collective profiles of consumers' buying habits, and in September, Digital:Convergence's lack of disclosure about data collection was called "misleading" by Robert Smith, chief technology officer of the Privacy Foundation in Denver, according to ZDNet News. At about the same time, Digital:Convergence was notified by securitywatch.com that its servers had been hacked, "and some information may have leaked out to unknown attackers," ZDNet reported.

Although the privacy concerns posed by :CueCats -- the device "transmits a unique code with every scan, identifying users by age, gender and zip code," writes Mossberg -- was reported by the New York Times in October, at least two Journal reporters were told to ignore the subject while publication of the Mossberg column was delayed, according to the newsletter of the Providence Newspaper Guild.

There wasn't this kind of paternalistic hedging when Rawson made a gutsy call -- and irked some of those readers who don't expect to find news in their newspaper -- to run the disturbing sequence of photos that showed a 12-year-old Palestinian boy getting killed by indiscriminate Israeli gunfire. It should be obvious that a newspaper has an extra obligation to report the news when it has a vested interest in it. Instead, the Journal opened itself to the appearance that business and marketing concerns influence the news pages.

As the Guild newsletter put it after publication of the Mossberg column was delayed, "Not only has an unfavorable evaluation of a company sales gimmick been suppressed, but Journal reporters have been banned from covering news that might reflect badly on company intentions. A newspaper that used to pride itself on its investigative reporting and the search for truth has now taken to managing the news to suit its corporate marketing strategy."

The decision to delay the :CueCat column, which was reported November 6 in the business section of New York Times, also disappointed Mossberg, a Warwick native who is described by Newsweek as "a champion of the technology-befuddled Everyman." He told the weekly Dallas Observer that he has a lot of respect for people at the Journal, but "I was surprised to learn that they did this, and I thought it was sad. I haven't spoken to them, but the Providence Journal I remember always had high standards and didn't ever allow the appearance that its journalism was influenced by its business interests."

THE JOURNAL still compares favorably, of course, with the newspapers in the many American cities where corporate penny-pinching, weak leadership, and a lack of daily competition translate into lackluster reportage. Asked about the paper's willingness to report on itself, some staffers consider the situation philosophically or view it through the prism of the ongoing battle between management and the Guild.

"I believe we have a set of idealistic editors who are still committed to good journalism," State House reporter Christopher Rowland writes in an e-mail. "What we're seeing at the paper is a painful adjustment to the realities of being owned by a publicly-traded company based in a faraway state. There's no point in pining for a return to the days of a local, altruistic owner. Those snows have melted."

Columnist Mark Patinkin says he would have liked for the Journal to be more forthright about its circulation problems. "At the same time, I think the paper right now is an adversarial relationship between union and management, far more so than in recent years," he says. "And during such times, I think we in the union tend to look too hard for, and sometimes dramatize, the paper's perceived flaws."

The thing is, newspapers -- like reporters -- live or die on their credibility, and some staffers at the Journal fear that the :CueCat caper signifies a troubling change in the culture of the paper. As put by Brian Jones, a 34-year-veteran who acknowledges that he tends to see things more darkly as a union activist, "I think something is going wrong here, and we are on a slippery slope." This might sound like a stretch to some. Then again, Jones isn't alone in his thinking. As one insider describes it, if you told Journal staffers two years ago that publication would be delayed of a column critical of a new Belo-backed product, there might have been a fistfight in the newsroom. And it's not just Guild partisans who are taking notice of the disconnect between the way the Journal reports on other news and the way it reports on itself.

Under the heading, "double standard," the September issue of Columbia Journalism Review awarded the Journal a "dart" for a curious contrast: giving front-page, above-the-fold play to a story this summer when a picket by Cranston police led to the cancellation of a debate by candidates in the Second Congressional District. But the next day, when a panel discussion at a health care forum, sponsored by the Journal and Brown University, had to be called off because Lieutenant Governor Charles Fogarty, Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse and a state legislator refused to cross a Guild picket line, the cancellation got short shrift in the final paragraph of a shorter story on the bottom of page three.

In a similar way, when several unions joined the Providence Newspaper Guild for a summer protest outside the Journal's Fountain Street offices, the demonstration by a few hundred people went unreported in the paper. Asking about this lapse on an electronic interoffice exchange, columnist Bob Kerr didn't receive an answer. Like a lot of veteran staffers, Kerr is disappointed and mystified by the way in which the Journal has become less willing to report on itself, but he strongly suspects a connection with the sale to Belo. "I have to think it's Texas," he says. "You can't think anything else. We've got good people here. We've got people who have got a real commitment to the quality of the paper."

John Morton, president of Morton Research, a newspaper industry analyst in Silver Spring, Maryland, says Belo -- which owns seven dailies and whose 18 TV stations reach 14 percent of US households with television -- doesn't typically manage the news content of its satellite properties from headquarters. "Obviously, you wield some control by whom you appoint to run your newspaper, but they don't really dictate editorial policy or anything like that," he says.

Indeed, although he refused to comment on the willingness of Belo properties to report on themselves, Skip Cass, a Belo senior vice president, says, "That decision [to delay publication of the :CueCat column] was made in Providence."

Although Belo's flagship, the Dallas Morning News, is considered among the 10 best American newspapers, it doesn't seem immune to some degree of self-censorship. In March, the Dallas Observer reported that Morning News reporter Ed Bark, who had critiqued local news for most of the last 20 years, was prohibited from doing so after the paper entered a news-sharing arrangement with a Belo-owned ABC affiliate, WFAA. However, since Bark was allowed to cover the station before the arrangement, "when it was still owned by Belo, the company now looks like it's scared to let its critic to write objectively," the Observer reported.

THE POTENTIAL for interference in journalism by business interests has only intensified in recent years with the dramatic consolidation of the media. In the mid-'80s, General Electric bought NBC, Disney bought ABC, and Westinghouse bought CBS in 1995. Family-owned newspapers have become relics, as the Journal, Boston Globe, Telegram & Gazette in Worcester, Massachusetts, and other papers, were sold to out-of-town corporations. These deals are dwarfed in turn by mega-mergers like the proposed coming together of America Online and Time Warner.

Given this atmosphere, it's not a surprise that self-censorship is a problem for journalists. According to a survey conducted earlier this year for Columbia Journalism Review by the Pew Center for the People and the Press, about a quarter of those polled have personally avoided newsworthy stories, and 30 percent of respondents believe that stories are ignored because they might conflict with the financial interests of their news organizations or advertisers.

The textbook case of unvarnished self-scrutiny remains labor reporter Abe Raskin's unexpurgated examination of a 114-day strike at the New York Times in 1963, and the decision by publisher of Orvil Dryfoos, despite the fierce objection of a high-ranking executive, to publish it. As Gay Talese writes in The Kingdom and the Power, Raskin discovered "to his utter lack of amazement that newspaper executives were like big businessmen anywhere -- equally quick at dodging reporters when the news was not so pleasant." And his account of the strike was so unsparing that, "President Kennedy, discussing it later in a conversation with a Timesman in Washington, said that if he had been Dryfoos, he probably would not have published it."

But although newspapers tend to do a far better job than broadcasters in reporting on their own potential conflicts of interest and the like, there remains a lot of room for improvement. "It's not a job that many people want, because if you try to do an honest job, [you wind up] rubbing your corporate side the wrong way and judging your colleagues," says Alex Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center at Harvard, who used to cover the press beat at the Times. Given this, the willingness of a paper to subject itself to independent reportage "really depends on the character of the publisher," Jones says. There's a need to have "a tolerance for criticism and sense of obligation to tell the truth about yourself when you're a publisher. There's no bunch of people who are more thin-skinned than newspaper publishers, but some have a real sense of duty about it."

For whatever reason, that sense of duty has diminished at the Journal. The irony is that Rawson, asked about Democratic suggestions of a pro-Chafee bias at the Journal, cites the paper's reporters as the best firewall against slanted coverage: "They're too contrary, too independent, and too fiercely competitive," he says. But when it comes to the kind of lapses that have gained the Journal unwanted attention in Columbia Journalism Review and the New York Times, the scribes' concerns have gone unheeded. The way things are going, more and more Journal readers are going to realize that Rhode Island's newspaper of record may have become its own greatest sacred cow.

Ian Donnis can be reached atidonnis@phx.com.

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